A few weeks ago, I learned of the existence of a book — a novel published nearly 25 years ago called “The Debt to Pleasure” — and decided, immediately, that I needed to own it. Various reviews and blurbs promised that it was brilliant. Its structure (a novel that was somehow also an essay and a cookbook?) sounded ingenious. I had recently read a hilarious little essay by the book’s author, John Lanchester. All the reasons I ought to buy it — why in fact I had no choice — gathered in my mind like the little metal shavings around the magnetic pencil-tip of that strange and soothing toy where you can drag clumps of hair around the head of an inexplicably red-nosed bald man.
But before I could hit the Buy Now button (which always causes, with its frictionlessness, a fillip of panic when I realize that I forgot to verify that the book is being sent to me and not, say, my wife’s grandmother in Florida), a familiar, dreary obstacle arose in my mind: the library. Specifically, the grand and Supreme Court-ish library that is all of three blocks from my apartment. Almost ruefully I loaded the library’s website onto my laptop and searched the catalog and sure enough, there it was: “The Debt to Pleasure,” available now. Would I like to place it on hold? Sigh, yes.
And thus did the bright balloon of my desire sink and sag until, by the time the book was ready to be picked up, it was like one of the balloons that my daughter insists on keeping around after birthday parties, bumping misshapenly among the chair legs. I still wanted to read “The Debt to Pleasure,” of course, but I no longer felt aglow with the heart-pumping certainty that I would love it. This shabby, yellow-papered object was so ordinary, so utterly unlike the crisp-edged, untouched brick of promise that is a new book.
The library had, for the thousandth time, performed its mundane magic trick: It had vaulted me into the future — the prosaic, dog-eared, heaped-by-the-bedside future — that this book and I would, however promising our first encounter, inevitably have ended up having anyway. The initial flush of book-lust promises: This book will change everything; this will be the one that finally gets you into epic poetry; this will teach you how to meditate. The library says: This book will contain a stranger’s ancient receipt and will be out of your life in three weeks.
And in dispelling my fantasies of permanence, the library does more than save me the cost of a paperback — it provides me with a template for navigating the great sea of longing and disappointment that is life. Imagine a library of expensive clothes, in which you could see the shirt you’re considering spending $98 on as it will look once it has got an ineradicable oil stain on its chest. Or a library of potential cities in which you might live, where each one is forced to display not just its tree-lined block on an April Saturday, but also its roasting Publix parking lot, its ginkgo-mashed sidewalk squares, its February bus stops. The library, in addition to its many civic duties, can function as a great engine of personal clarity, of facing facts, of recognizing that life is not, in the main, a pristine hardcover with deckle edges; it is a threadbare thing from a few decades ago whose binding is barely hanging on and in which someone unstable once went to town with a lime green highlighter.
Library-induced realism is a great thing, one that can do much to increase your happiness. Because the world in which you are perpetually under the impression that the next book purchase, the next apartment, the next significant other will be the one that finally delivers the goods is not a life of happiness. It is a life of perpetual dissatisfaction, a life of thin and sugary highs followed by long and unenlightening lows. The library is, with its careworn and temporary offerings, as lovely and as poignant a reminder of our actual human condition as the tides or a forest in fall. To quote Penelope Fitzgerald (whose books are well worth owning): “Our lives are only lent to us.”
And I should probably mention here: I did end up loving “The Debt to Pleasure.” I loved it so much that I have now ordered a copy of my own, and I await it with the contented serenity of a shepherd gathering in his flock at sundown. The library can (in fact it frequently does) deliver satisfaction, but it is an autumnal satisfaction, one that looks beyond the mirage of permanent ownership. I know that I love this novel and that it will bring me great pleasure, and I also know that my daughter will someday place it on the curb beside a chess set and a broken kettle (just needs a new plug!).
When, one recent day, the library copy of “The Debt to Pleasure” was due, I walked it over to the weird side entrance that is now acting as the library’s drop-off window, and I tossed the book into the blue plastic wheelie Returns bin. This book that had, a few nights earlier in bed, made me laugh so hard that I couldn’t intelligibly explain to my wife what was so funny was now heaped with hundreds of others — diet books, vampire books, picture books — each one fresh from its role in one person’s life and headed, as soon as it could be reshelved, for another. I walked off without looking back. The book had never belonged to me in the first place.
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